Christopher Muther for the Boston Globe
Groups drink from illuminated wine glasses during the Night of the Galleries on Sept. 16 in Quebec City. More than 35 art galleries participated in the event. Attendees could hop from gallery to gallery and fill their wine glasses along the way.
The cruise ship passengers, adorned in unironic fanny packs and sensible walking shoes, filled Old Quebec by the thousands but didn’t seem to travel past Old Quebec and into man bun country. It’s a shame because I spent many afternoons both inside and outside the old walls, which where built to protect French settlers from the English.
I’d head outside Old Quebec, and after a brisk 20 minute walk I’d be in areas such as the Saint-Roch District and Saint-Jean, which are filled with secondhand stores, boutiques, cafes, and chic bistronomy eateries that spill over onto the sidewalks.
I could tell I had found an authentically cool Quebec lunch experience one afternoon at Le Cercle on Saint-Joseph Street. because the menu was French-only and written on a small chalk board. I went back to Le Cercle that night to listen to DJs and sip a Le Letha (vodka, thyme pepper syrup, and sparkling cider).
Before I continue with tales of where to go and what to do, I have a confession to make. This was my first trip to Quebec City. I’ve traveled to Montreal so many times that I didn’t see the need to go any further north. In Quebec City, they speak French and eat poutine just like in Montreal. It was a petite Montreal, no?
“No,” I was told by an artist named Mike Gagnon, who I met at Night of the Galleries. I wasn’t fully convinced he was an authority on the subject because he told me he had consumed seven glasses of those omnipresent glowing unicorn tears that everyone else called wine. “Quebec City is more pure. You don’t hear as much English here as you do in Montreal. I think we’ve maintained our heritage.”
I later posed the question to Dagmar Lombard, general manager of the hotel Auberge Saint-Antoine. She confirmed that Quebec City is far different from the province’s largest city. The pace is slower, Quebec City is far more compact, and for years there has been a fierce rivalry between the two cities. Some attribute the rivalry to the days when Quebec City had its own professional hockey team. The whole thing reminded me of a New York-Boston rivalry, but in French and with better croissants.
One of the first things I did to acclimate myself shortly after arrival was hop on the Quebec City-Lévis Ferry at sunset. This is the best way to view Cap-Diamant, the iconic Château Frontenac, and Dufferin Terrace. It’s also under $10. Château Frontenac, which is featured on about 90 pecent of Quebec City postcards, may look like a 17th century French palace looming over the center of Old Quebec, but it’s a grand hotel (still in operation) built in 1893.
For first-timers, such as myself, there were a few essentials that needed to be checked off the list. Start with Palace Royale and Petite Champlian in Old Quebec. Here you’ll find Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, the oldest stone church in North America. Not far away is the Museum of Civilization.
When you’ve finished in this area, which is called Lower Town (Basse-Ville), take the funicular to the aptly named Upper Town (Haute-Ville). If you’re feeling athletic, you can skip the funicular and climb the Breakneck Stairs, a painfully accurate name for the mega-steep staircase. The higher you walk in Upper Town, the better the views. The Citadelle de Quebec is one of your best vantage points.
You can duck down streets lined with 19th century granite homes. The window boxes are so bursting with color that you’ll think that geraniums are weeds in this city. They’re everywhere.
Because it was my first visit, allow me to speak in generalities and stereotypes for a moment. Old Quebec is one of the most European cities in North America. It’s far more French than Montreal in architecture and language. The culinary scene hasn’t caught up to Montreal, but there are can’t-miss meals at the farm-to-table Légende par la Tanière, the beer-loving La Korrigane, and the casually gourmet L’affaire est Ketchup. Don’t let the fact that obnoxious travel bro Anthony Bourdain featured L’affaire est Ketchup on his show keep you from trying it.